Paul Pillar

Traffic, Prosperity and Politics in China

An eye-catching news report out of China on Friday was that a man had been sentenced to life in prison (along with a $300,000 fine) for evading highway tolls. The offender, a farmer from Henan Province named Shi Jianfeng, had been making extra money hauling sand and gravel and used fake military license plates on his trucks to use toll roads for free. A life sentence—now that's rigorous enforcement of highway laws. Imagine how much better compliance we would have here in the United States if the authorities took that kind of approach. I don't think you'd see many drivers trying to breeze through the toll booths without a paid-up E-ZPass. And what about other sorts of violations where scofflaws now abound? If repeated evasion of tolls gets a life sentence, then, say, a second misuse of High Occupancy Vehicle lanes ought to be worth at least five years in the slammer. If it were, those HOV cheaters on I-66 surely would think twice before the next time they try to shave a few minutes off their morning commute.

China, of course, has a political and judicial system that makes such draconian punishment more thinkable than it would be in the United States. The differences in the systems are clearest in blatant and harsh crackdowns on political and civil liberties, most blatantly and bloodily with the one in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But as Shi Jianfeng's case demonstrates, China's authoritarianism can collide not only with fundamental political and civil rights but also with more quotidian concerns of workers and consumers trying to get along and get ahead in a growing and increasingly prosperous society.

Something as mundane as traffic and its associated ills and annoyances can become a major social, psychological, and thus political factor, as it has in parts of the United States. A high proportion of the population in the Washington, DC area, where I live, works on or is otherwise concerned with matters of high politics and policy, including world affairs. But the area also has some of the country's worst traffic, and contending with that traffic each day is a major focus of attention for many residents. My congressman, Frank Wolf (R-VA), is starting his sixteenth term; he obviously has a good feel for what concerns his constituents. Although Wolf speaks out on a variety of domestic and foreign issues (including human rights abroad), the part of his work that has done the most to cement his hold on his seat has involved local issues and especially transportation issues. He has paid special attention to such matters as an improved entrance ramp and acceleration lane on a major traffic artery.

China is now far enough along on its race to prosperity that its people have acquired many of the middle class ambitions and concerns that Americans have had for years. Some of those ambitions and concerns involve cars and traffic. Some of the associated ills and annoyances are even more acute in China because, given the rapid pace at which the country has moved into prosperity, Chinese infrastructure has struggled to keep up. A privately owned automobile was not an option at all for Chinese families before the 1980s. As Chinese have acquired the financial wherewithal to buy this piece of the middle class dream, the demand for automobiles has soared and continues to accelerate. Year-to-year sales increased 46 percent in 2009 and another 35 percent in 2010, and there are now 85 million cars on the road in China. Road-building has also boomed, but not fast enough to keep pace. Last summer the biggest highway news out of China was of a monstrous traffic jam between Beijing and Inner Mongolia that stretched for 60 miles and in which many vehicles and their drivers were caught for several days. Many highways in China have tolls, which as public commentary in Shi Jianfeng's case has illustrated, have become a common source of complaint. Then there is that perennial bane of car-heavy societies: insufficient parking. Last month another man from Henan Province died from injuries suffered in a fight over a parking space.

What effect will the daily preoccupations of an increasingly prosperous society—vividly exemplified by, but by no means limited to, traffic problems—have on the politics and policies of China, including policies of concern to the United States? I don't know, but such a major reorientation of the attitudes and attention of a large portion of those one and a third billion people is bound to have some such impact. Perhaps it will force the regime to direct relatively more of its attention and resources to domestic infrastructure and less than it otherwise would to flexing its muscle overseas. Or perhaps it will have the opposite effect, in which a population preoccupied with sustaining and embellishing its newly prosperous lifestyle pays little attention to foreign and security affairs, giving the regime an ever freer hand in the latter areas. More specifically, it might give the People's Liberation Army a freer hand, as possibly illustrated by how the test of a new stealth aircraft during Secretary Gates's recent visit evidently was a surprise even to President Hu.

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